Applying for financial aid is an annual rite for college students and their parents. It’s tedious and the process is often compared to any number of dental procedures. As painful as filling out the forms — electronically or otherwise — may be, the discomfort can be exacerbated quite a bit when mistakes slow down the whole process.
If you need financial aid to attend college, you will more than likely have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—the FAFSA. Practically all public colleges and universities, and many private schools, use it to determine aid eligibility. Like many federal forms, though, filling out the FAFSA is not exactly fun. In fact, it can be downright tedious.
The form’s complexity and a lack of user-friendliness combine to create a process that can be fraught with errors. Errors on the FAFSA can delay your school in determining your financial aid, and that is bad. The good news is that the most common errors can be avoided. This list from Top5.com identifies several errors that are easy to make — and easy to avoid — when it comes to filling out the FAFSA.
We’ve banged this drum before on FrugalDad.com, but it is worth repeating: Submit your FAFSA as soon as you can after January 1. For the FAFSA, the federal government has no filing deadline, but most schools do have financial aid deadlines. Colleges tend to distribute their available aid on a first-come, first-served basis. This means that if you wait to submit your FAFSA, less aid may be available for you, even if you’re otherwise eligible.
If your parents are separated or divorced, the FAFSA will look only at the income and assets of the parent with whom you lived the most in the 12 months prior to your application, not the parent who has custody of you. This results in a lot of confusion, and presumably reduced aid eligibility in some cases. Reporting the income of both parents or the parent who has custody on the date of the application can lead to erroneous calculations under the federal methodology.
The FAFSA does not tolerate blanks very well. When you do not answer a question, what happens is that the algorithm used by the Department of Education’s computers assumes you forgot to give an answer. Rather than assuming a zero, system will report an incomplete application. Incomplete FAFSAs delay your results and require you to resubmit the form. If you come across a question that doesn’t apply to you or should be zero—especially in the income section of the FAFSA, which requires an answer to every question—enter “0″ as the answer.
Filing Your Taxes First
The FAFSA asks for a lot of financial information, including income and other details that you provide on your tax forms. One major mistake that students and their parents make is waiting until they have finished preparing their tax returns before submitting a FAFSA. Doing so can delay your aid determination, during which time the supply of aid funds will get smaller. A better strategy, especially if you experienced no major changes in your financial situation, is to use the previous year’s information, along with W-2s, 1099s and pay stubs to estimate income. Submit your FAFSA with the estimates, then, once you file your tax return, go back and amend the submission.
No matter how you feel about your circumstances or your parents, if you are an undergraduate student who is 24 or younger, you are most likely dependent for financial aid purposes. Confusion surrounding this status can result in contradictory answers on the FAFSA and, ultimately, a delay and a need to resubmit the application. When a college looks at your FAFSA, only a few select criteria will make you independent under the federal methodology. These are: being 24 or older; having children of your own; active-duty military service; or having your own dependents who live with you. The decision of whether you have independent status is typically made by the college to which you’re applying.